Practice Over Passion: A Freelancer’s Writing Life
June 30, 2017 § 24 Comments
By Allison Futterman
I write human interest, travel, profile, craft and food pieces for a variety of magazines. As a freelancer, I’m constantly pitching stories in search of that elusive “yes” from an editor. I suggest stories that are interesting to me and that I believe will also be interesting to readers. When I get the green light on one of these, the work really begins.
I didn’t start writing until I tried many other things. I worked as a media buyer in a New York City advertising agency. I worked in product development in Los Angeles. And there were other jobs in between. I had no passion for any of these, and, therefore, didn’t see the need to be proactive, industrious or diligent in my work.
Same with college. I was a communications major, with no idea what I would do with my degree. I only knew what I didn’t want, which was to do anything in the entertainment industry. I picked my major because it sounded somewhat interesting, although once I got into it, I was surprised that the passion didn’t overtake me immediately. Or at all.
So I got by. I never really applied myself or took any initiative. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even take much pride in my work, satisfied with mediocrity. I mistakenly conflated lack of passion with lack of work ethic. In my mind, they were inextricably linked. Without the first, I saw no need for the later. Why bother putting in the effort if I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. Never mind that I didn’t even know what I wanted to be doing. I was waiting for that to hit me—my dream job.
Then I thought I found “it.” I would go to graduate school for criminal justice and write about true-life crime. When I finished my master’s, I knew the early signs of a future serial killer (Hint: If you have a child who sets fires or hurts animals, seek help), learned about the prison industrial complex and the power of restorative justice, but I wasn’t any closer to writing about any of these things.
I had a professor who was a mentor to me, and he gave me great advice. He suggested writing book reviews for peer-reviewed criminology journals. There was no pay involved, but it was a way to combine my degree and my interest in writing. He named a few to start with, and I got started.
After I had reviews published, I used those clips to pitch other ideas. I was now operating from a different mentality. Nothing was just going to happen. It was up to me to pursue writing and see if I would enjoy it. And if I could do it with any degree of success. I felt a spark. Not a lightning bolt, but a spark.
A local magazine had started up. It was geared to moms of toddlers. I didn’t have a toddler and I wasn’t a mom, but I didn’t let that stop me. I thought outside the box and came up with ideas that would work for their readership. Things like, “How to Maintain Friendships with Friends Who Don’t Have Kids.”
From there, I did freelance work for The Charlotte Observer. I sought out local stories about people with interesting hobbies, talents and skills. Others were change-makers in the community.
I also found a way to merge my interest in criminal justice with writing. No, these stories weren’t going to win a Pulitzer, but I think they were generally interesting. There was one about a police officer and his bomb-sniffing canine partner, another about a female police captain who overcame breast cancer, and a really cool piece about a man who had made a fortune owning car dealerships and gave up that work to join the police department at forty years old.
Writing as a profession is a blessing to me. It’s incredibly rewarding meeting so many interesting people, and learning about and sharing their stories. I consider it an honor that people trust me with what can be extremely personal and difficult revelations. And I especially enjoy being able to bring attention to those who are working to help others, whether it’s in the community, or the world.
But writing is not a dream come true. There are times when I’ve done stories where I don’t have much interest in the material. Sometimes an editor has asked if I’d like to do a piece on something I don’t find especially appealing. I never say no based on the subject matter. The only reason I would ever turn down a writing gig is if I’m already working on something with a tight deadline.
Still, the process of working on a written piece is the same whether you’re excited about it or not. Sure, it’s great when you are drawn to the subject matter. But the process of seeking out and interviewing your sources, organizing your notes, laying out a rough draft and then tightening it up to send to your editor remain the same whether you’re writing a magnum opus or a piece for your local newspaper.
After years of writing, I am passionate about my work. But that’s not what produces the best pieces. It’s endless research, attention to detail, being able to connect with people, working within a word count and knowing how to write well in a variety of styles (narrative, Q & A, etc.). It’s being open to the editing process, and knowing how to work well with editors. It’s learning when it’s best to let an edit (reworking of a sentence, cutting of a paragraph, replacing a word) go, and when it’s worth fighting to keep. It’s about getting work done by or before my deadline, and consistently turning in solid work so editors want to work with me again.
The more I write, the better I get. And the better I get, the more I enjoy it. But there’s always part of the process that is a grind, regardless of how interesting the subject matter is. Writing is not just the words you put down, but the entire process—from finding ideas to write about to producing a final, edited finished product.
I’m no longer the person who takes the path of least resistance or looks for the quickest way to get something done. Practicing your craft, persevering, and taking pride in your work all add up to becoming a good writer. Loving it is a bonus.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Charlotte, The Writer and Winston-Salem Monthly magazines, among others. Her work has also appeared online. Find her at allisonfutterman.com.